By Elaine Wolff
Up 'til now, the abstract works that painter Charlie Morris has shown in San Antonio have been a bit subdued for my taste. The series that opened at REM Gallery's old Finesilver location last year, based on images of film negatives rendered in mustards and earthy tones, was visually intriguing and uneasily reminiscent of Realtree camouflage (photographers and hunters fix their target in crosshairs) - which, whether or not that was intentional, proved to be a foreshadowing of his current show at REM's new Blue Star location. But it also wouldn't be out of place above the conference table in any cosmopolitan corporate office. In part, that's an acknowledgement of the obvious skill and craft that Morris, who has an MFA and teaches at the university level, brings to his work.
Two more recent paintings in the same abstract vein that currently hang at neighboring Joan Grona Gallery are more vibrant and a little edgier, while still showing a trademark attention to detail and finish. They hint at the exciting show tucked away in REM proprietor Dana Read's temporary gallery, which also doubles as her eclectic apartment.
Morris, a somewhat quiet, genial fellow with a philosophical streak, has been troubled by the political direction of the country since George W. Bush's election and, more specifically, by the Iraq war. These new paintings, most rendered in shiny black enamel on a white matte background, show officers wandering alone in strange landscapes; on other panels, grunts in uniform bend to wash the dirt from their hands while pigs engage in an X-rated frolic nearby. The incongruity of an octopus - borrowed from children's books as the officers were "duped" from old military manuals - playing a grand piano while a serviceman crouches in the background limns a sense of vertigo and impotency at the escalating mayhem of the situation in the Middle East.
The military has been led astray, just as we have been duped, Morris is saying, and a sense of bleak disillusionment exudes from the work. The black-and-white panels, too, remind me of the amateur psychology test in which those students who picked quadrangles farthest from a perfect square were warned of their tendency to be non-conformist, or even criminal. This set of long, narrow rectangles is Morris' dissent, and it is moving.
This series of paintings has a rougher feel to it than Morris' abstract works, which suits the subject matter. The apparent hand, sometimes a little shaky, sometimes leaving a line a little unfinished, speaks of a mind engaged as much in the subject matter as in the medium. That isn't to say that Morris' professionalism isn't welcome - in an era when too many artists still feel that content trumps all it's always good to see craft combined with agenda.
Nonetheless, the most exciting piece in the show is a large red abstract negative painting. Titled "Upside-Downside," it gains political overtones from the surrounding work, and connects Morris' examination of incidental misrepresentation with intentional chicanery. A figure in a cowboy hat could be our President equivocating on the effects of our foreign policy. It's a little disappointing to find out that the dude is actually fellow artist Chris Sauter. Nonetheless, it's apparent that Morris, a capable marksman, has ambitious subjects in his sights. •
By Elaine Wolff